The Grateful Dead, the quintessential hippie rock band, forged in the belly of the San Francisco underground Acid Tests, has kept us all rolling, twirling and tripping along with them on their long, strange trip since 1967 with the release of their first album. They have gained and lost band members, written timeless songs, and allowed us all an excuse to feel that freeing feeling of communal liberation that is, a Grateful Dead show. Although I was only 14 when Jerry Garcia died, I did experience the revival of the band in Furthur Festival, The Dead and The Other Ones. I even got to attend one in 1998 with my father, which remains one of my favorite memories and stories to tell. It’s such a spectacle of the other way to live life, the other way seeming to be a shunning of “traditional” values, appearances and cultures. The women have hairy armpits, the men wear wavy sun dresses, babies dance naked next to empty beer cans, grey haired hippies sell glass pipes and veggie quesadillas, while young trust funders rock short dreads, goodwill t-shirts and expensive huarache sandals from their last family trip to Belize. There was a very peaceful, sharing, familial vibe at those concerts, except for the mounted police (but, maybe that’s because I’m slightly afraid of horses). The Grateful Dead cultivated this atmosphere of freedom by allowing fans to tape all their shows without restriction or copyright issues. Now, there is such a large database of live music, some websites are “dead”icated to distributing and trading these past archives of live musical anarchy.
One of the most underrated aspects of The Dead was their chief lyricist, Robert Hunter. He partnered with Jerry Garcia’s musical genius to write some of their most cherished songs with profound and remarkable lyrics to match. “Eyes of the World”, “Wharf Rat”, “Terrapin Station”, “Touch of Grey” and basically all of American Beauty were co-written by Robert Hunter. His lyrics meld with Jerry and Bob’s voice so well before creating those tender jams through the bands’ combined instruments. Hunter’s lyrics always spoke to me, but recently, when listening to the Dead’s traveling mantra song, Truckin’, I heard a lyric I never paid attention to before. The line goes: “Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ‘em down.” It hit me rather straight on the nose. I have been thinking about that aspect of my life. Am I doing all I can, all the time? Am I taking chances, am I using my talents? Am I laying “my cards” down or folding? Another great idea of act first, worry later is from “Terrapin Station.” The narrator watches as two men observe a beautiful woman, then the sailor approaches her and she chooses him over the handsome, discreet soldier. Risk can be rewarded. Timidity rarely precedes triumph.
I just saw an interview with the insane Steve-O who told cameras he’d rather regret things he’s done rather than things he hasn’t done. He is no model for life without regret, as he is the same man who jammed fireworks into his rectum and sat in an “overloaded” portable toilet slingshot. Yet, those stunts gave millions a reason to laugh and made him a well-paid household name. Those experiences can wash away with an enema and a strong shower, but regretting things we could have done, is a fate far worse. As Calogero learns by the end of the movie—A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices you make will shape your life forever.” I had learned this life gem back in 2006 when I was traveling Europe—“Always say ‘Hello’”. It was a great way to meet new friends when rolling solo, but required action, and the chance of spurning. (“60% of the time, it works every time.”) It did work, and allowed me to meet some crazy dudes and some marvelous women and it all started by putting aside preconceptions and just doing. But, what about using my talents, do I have any talents that I’m unaware of or am not stimulating enough? Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it and focus on the things I do well. Perhaps that is acceding to mediocrity or stagnation. Perhaps I’m okay with mediocrity. Perhaps I’m setting low goals so that I reach them. Perhaps I’m American and told from an early age to aspire to greatness and distinction in life and like a multitude of the anxiety riddled masses perpetually left disappointed with my seemingly mediocre existence, yet only mediocre when compared to others’. Perhaps I am happy. Perhaps I know the secret to my happiness is individualized and not a shape or size that others may conceive of for me.
The Grateful Dead made music and performed the way they wanted. The fans fed off this customized way of life and lived accordingly. Maybe living the way you think you’re supposed to live is the biggest waste of talent. Maybe comparing your life to another’s is like the apple to the orange. Both fruits will be disappointed and unaware of their own individual sweetness and uniqueness.